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Megan Smolenyak
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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that's her real name) is a real life history detective who loves to solve mysteries. You might have spotted Megan or her handiwork on Top Chef, Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, Faces of America, Good Morning America, the Today Show, The Early Show, CNN, PBS, BBC and NPR.

She's the author of 6 books, including Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing and Who Do You Think You Are? (companion to the TV series) and conducts forensic research for the Army, coroners, NCIS and the FBI.

Among her “greatest hits” are:

* Discovering Michelle Obama’s roots (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Celebrity roots as seen on assorted TV shows (e.g., Martha Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Brooke Shields, Cory Booker, Susan Sarandon, Emmitt Smith, Richard Blais, etc.) and in her writings (e.g., Betty White, Katy Perry, Joe Biden, Beyonce, Julia Roberts, Josh Groban, Pink, Prince, Jon Stewart, Bruno Mars, etc.)

* Tracing Barack Obama’s roots to Moneygall, Co. Offaly, Ireland

* Correcting history by revealing the true story of Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Providing a decade of forensic consulting to the U.S. Army to locate thousands of family members of soldiers still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia

* Using her sleuthing skills to help coroners and medical examiners locate the next of kin for unclaimed persons

Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, megansmolenyak.com, or HonoringOurAncestors.

Entries by Megan Smolenyak

When It Comes to Genetic Genealogy, Women Need Not Apply

(0) Comments | Posted May 4, 2016 | 9:59 AM

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Not long ago, I observed that genealogy is now officially a TV genre. One of the reasons I felt confident in making this claim is the frequency with which I am approached by television producers about forthcoming shows. They reach out...

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Exclusive Video: Molly Ringwald Mines Her Family History on #WDYTYA

(2) Comments | Posted April 21, 2016 | 12:17 AM

If you had an ancestor known simply as "the Swede," wouldn't you want to know more about him? And what about those claims he made of royal heritage? Is there anything to that?

That's what author, chanteuse, and beloved actress Molly Ringwald seeks to find out in her "Who Do You Think You Are?" adventure (Sunday, April 24th on TLC, 9/8c) that takes her to New York, Sweden, and Nebraska.

Following the trail of her mysterious great-grandfather, she travels to his homeland and goes deep (literally) to explore her family's connection to coal mining. Along the way, she discovers generations who struggled to survive through unspeakable tragedies - and one brave ancestor who forever changed her family's...

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Suddenly Amish: Katey Sagal's Roots Journey Takes a Buggy Turn

(0) Comments | Posted April 16, 2016 | 2:50 PM

Many of us have heard of the "suddenly Jewish" phenomenon when someone raised as a gentile discovers their Jewish heritage, but actress and singer-songwriter Katey Sagal (better known to many as Peggy Bundy and/or Gemma Teller Morrow) has a very different experience on TLC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" Ms. Sagal, whose father was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, finds out that she is . . . Amish? Yup, Amish.

And this revelation - which prompts her to declare the need to acquire a buggy and a bonnet - is only part of the story. Learning more about the remarkable mother she lost too soon all the way back to her "peace-mongering" ancestors who put the lives of others before their own safety, Ms. Sagal takes as unexpected a journey as any celebrity has on the series to date. To take that buggy ride with her, tune into TLC on Sunday, April 17th,...

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Sneak Peek: Scott Foley's Revolutionary and Bewitching 'Who Do You Think You Are?' Journey

(0) Comments | Posted April 6, 2016 | 11:20 AM

Actor, director and screenwriter Scott Foley takes his turn under the Who Do You Think You Are? microscope to explore family stories that have been passed down to him. Did one of his ancestors really serve in the Revolutionary War, and if so, what did he do and experience?

And what else might he discover as he plumbs the depths of the Daughters of the American Revolution Library (DAR) in Washington, D.C. and the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, Massachusetts? Could there be some bewitching tales hidden in the branches of his family tree? Tune in (TLC, Sunday, April 10th, 9/8c) as Foley's roots journey takes him to some very unexpected...

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Genealogy Is Officially a TV Genre

(0) Comments | Posted April 4, 2016 | 11:18 AM

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It only took about two decades, but this genie's wish has finally been granted: genealogy is now officially its own TV genre. With current offerings including Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, Relative Race, Genealogy Roadshow, Long Lost Family, and...

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Aisha Tyler Isn't Afraid to Dig Deep on Season Premiere of 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

(0) Comments | Posted April 1, 2016 | 8:31 AM


video preview of Aisha Tyler's Who Do You Think You Are? episode

Like so many, I'm delighted that Aisha Tyler (actress, comedian, host (The Talk, Whose Line Is It Anyway?), author (Swerve, Self-Inflicted Wounds), podcaster (Girl on Guy), serious gamer, and so much more) will be featured in the season premiere of Who Do You Think You Are? (TLC, Sunday, April 3 at 9/8c). She's whip smart, talented, funny, thoughtful, and gorgeous. What's not to love?

In her episode, Aisha plunges into her mother's family history, following the trail of a man whose story had been lost over generations. Along the way, she uncovers the tale of a prominent ancestor whose struggle to keep his illegitimate son secret made the newspapers, a father who actively fought against his kin's basic human rights, and the saga of her great-great-grandfather who dove headlong into controversy, taking a brave stand for his people, and leaving a mark so great that he is commemorated today by one of America's capital cities.

Happily for this fangirl, I had the opportunity to chat with Aisha about her roots-sleuthing experience. What follows is an encapsulated version of our conversation.

What was your initial reaction when approached?

I was excited about it - and curious. I honestly don't understand people who go into this experience with trepidation because I don't feel obligated or bound to the behavior of my ancestors. People are complex. They're not all bad and they're not all good. I was just curious and open-minded.

Did you have any guesses about where your journey might take you? And if so, did they pan out or did you wind up going in a completely different direction?

I guess I assumed that I was going to go to Africa! So no, I had no idea, and I had a belief that my family had originated in the Eastern seaboard, so the cities I ended up going to were a big surprise.

Your mother's side of the family is very accomplished and complex. Did you grow up with any stories or was it a bit of a mystery?

On my mother's father's side, there are really active family historians, so I heard a lot of stories including that we had ancestors who originated in Madagascar and were free men from the time they arrived, that we were related to the doctor who separated blood from plasma, and we also had a connection to Frederick Douglass. There were all these stories - a collection of pretty hot tickets! But I wasn't sure of it all, so that drove some of my curiosity. I thought, "Well, let's find out if this stuff is true." (For those who might be curious, celebrity participants are given all the research for their entire family regardless of whether it's included in their episode.)

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Aisha Tyler, courtesy of TLC

Did you find the detective aspect of genealogy appealing?

Absolutely. I feel that shooting the show was very much that experience of pulling threads and trying to deduce. They don't tell you the whole story, you've got to infer from conditions, from the context, from the times - what was going on politically or culturally in the country -- what they were experiencing. You don't know what their experience was at that time, so you've got to figure it out. What would it have been like to be a black man in (place to be revealed) at that time? So there is a lot of detective work involved and that was interesting to me.

Has your perspective of your ancestors changed as a result of your participation?

(Pausing for thought) Ahhh . . . nooo. Nothing was shocking to me, but the stuff I learned about my two times great-grandfather, I found wonderfully indicating. I thought, "Ah, maybe this is why I do some of the things I do or am excited by some of things I'm excited by." He endured a lot and accomplished a lot of extraordinary things at a very difficult time for a black man in America. I found that very exciting and energizing, and it made me more optimistic.

If you could have dinner with any one of your ancestors, which one would it be and why?

Well, my two times great-grandfather. He had a defiant personality and refused to be hamstrung. He was really bold and an adventurer and I would have loved to sit down with him.

What advice would you give to the next celebrity who's tapped on the shoulder for this?

Just be brave. I don't get when people are worried about what they're going to find out about their family. Human beings are complex and frail and brave and transcendent and terrible. They're all those things that really only affect you in as much as you let it, but I think you'll find out more about who you are and where you came from, and how that might have influenced you or not influenced you, or encourage you to either embrace the legacy of your ancestors or to reject it and change the way that you live your life. I think it's a really galvanizing experience, so just get in there and be brave. Don't be afraid to dig deep.

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Aisha Tyler and genealogist Megan Smolenyak on a previous...
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New Season of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' Launching April 3rd

(0) Comments | Posted March 2, 2016 | 11:56 PM

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The Emmy nominated series Who Do You Think You Are? returns this spring to follow more of today's most beloved and iconic celebrities as they embark on personal journeys of self-discovery to trace their family trees. The series continues...

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My #NotAllowedToDie List

(1) Comments | Posted January 14, 2016 | 1:04 PM

First David Bowie. Then Alan Rickman. This week and cancer both suck. Sixty-nine years is not enough, so we all take to Twitter, Facebook, and countless other platforms to lament. This is now familiar territory and not in a good way.

My first memory of this kind of grief...

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Ted Cruz and the Question of 'Natural Born' Citizenship

(128) Comments | Posted January 8, 2016 | 7:40 AM

I grew up thinking that I couldn't become president of the United States because I was born in France. This seemed unjust as my overseas birth was due to my father serving as a U.S. Army officer, and both of my parents were native-born Americans, but still, given what seemed...

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Best-Selling Author Lisa See Offers Valuable Chinese-American Genealogy Resource

(0) Comments | Posted October 26, 2015 | 11:04 AM

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"In all my novels, including the mysteries, I've written about history that has been lost, forgotten, or deliberately covered up. I've written about how history affects individual people and their families, every day, including all of us right now. With my...

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Ann Coulter's Immigrant Ancestors

(135) Comments | Posted October 19, 2015 | 12:54 PM

In a recent appearance on The View to promote her latest book, Ann Coulter reiterated her well-known anti-immigrant stance. Guest host Ana Navarro responded, saying, "Let me point out that you're sitting at this table next to two immigrants ... What is your family's immigration story? Are you a Native...

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Inmates Indexing Genealogy Records

(3) Comments | Posted August 13, 2015 | 9:14 AM

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A short while ago, I tripped across an article in Mother Jones by Shane Bauer entitled Your Family's Genealogical Records May Have Been Digitized by a Prisoner.

I've long enjoyed the insightful pieces this publication offers and was pleased...

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Alfre Woodard Goes on a Memorable Roots Journey

(1) Comments | Posted August 6, 2015 | 2:41 PM

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(courtesy of TLC)

Actress Alfre Woodard's grandfather died when her father was only a toddler, so this part of her family tree is a mystery. To uncover the past, Ms. Woodard goes an ancestral journey through Georgia and Louisiana, and learns the triumphant...

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Season 3 of 'Finding Your Roots' Green-Lighted for January 2016 Return on PBS

(9) Comments | Posted July 14, 2015 | 12:45 PM

Several weeks ago, I wrote about the PBS decision to delay the next season of Finding Your Roots as a result of an internal investigation triggered by the Ben Affleck incident involving censorship of a slave-owning ancestor of his from a previously aired episode. Season 3 of the...

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Celebrity Genealogy on TV: Who and When?

(3) Comments | Posted June 28, 2015 | 6:00 PM

History and genealogy geeks are delighted with the TLC announcement that its popular celebrity roots series, Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA), will be back for its seventh season starting on July 26. Stepping into the ancestral spotlight this time are Tom Bergeron, Bryan Cranston, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Alfre...

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LeBron James Is Making His Cleveland Ancestors Proud

(0) Comments | Posted June 15, 2015 | 8:54 AM

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(familysearch.org)

There's no shortage of coverage of the stunning performance of LeBron James in the NBA finals, nor of his Prodigal Son, return-to-Cleveland tale. Even so, he's widely regarded as a son of Akron, which makes perfect sense since he was...

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WWI Hero Sgt. Henry Johnson Receives Long Overdue Medal of Honor

(3) Comments | Posted June 2, 2015 | 3:13 PM

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Sgt. (William) Henry Johnson

Almost a century after their service, Sgt. Henry Johnson* and Sgt. William Shemin were finally awarded the Medal of Honor at a White House ceremony for their heroics in World War I. Both had been overlooked previously, though Johnson,...

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World's Largest Family Reunion: Genealogy or Preen-ealogy?

(11) Comments | Posted June 1, 2015 | 2:22 PM

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A.J. Jacobs has me at war with myself. As a fan of experiment-on-self books and documentaries, I'm a long-time admirer of his and greatly enjoyed The Know-It-All, The Year of Living Biblically, and The Guinea Pig Diaries. So when I first learned of...

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The Irish Heritage of the Remarkable Anne Meara

(0) Comments | Posted May 25, 2015 | 12:59 PM

Like so many, I am mourning the loss of actress, comedian and writer, Anne Meara. Partnered in every sense of the word with Jerry Stiller (whose autobiography is called Married to Laughter: A Love Story Featuring Anne Meara), her husband of 61 years, she brought smiles to all of us,...

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Memorial Day: Correcting the Story of World War I Medal of Honor Recipient Sgt. Henry Johnson

(2) Comments | Posted May 22, 2015 | 11:30 AM

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It's almost a century later than would have been ideal, but Sgt. Henry Johnson* and Sgt. William Shemin are being awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama at a White House ceremony for their heroics in World War I. Both...

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